Crossing Over: Western and Chinese Contemporary Art

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling, 2013. Photo: Severin Stalder; Creative Commons CC BY 3.0

A curious situation arises: while Chinese artists continue to be present and active on the global stage, ‘Chinese contemporary art’ has become an anachronistic category devoid of generative and transformative potentials.

ArtReview is partnering with Asymmetry to publish a series of reflections by the foundation’s fellows which explore the future of curatorial practice. Here, writer and researcher Weitian Liu – recipient of the Asymmetry PhD Scholarship for the ‘Advanced Practices’ Programme at Goldsmiths, University of London – considers overlooked crossovers between Chinese and Western art practices, within the asymmetrical landscape of the global artworld.

Around this time last year I was stuck in Scotland, applying to the Home Office for another ‘exceptional assurance’ that would allow me to stay in the UK legally after my visa had expired. I had to do that because my flight to China had been cancelled once again following the suspension of direct flights between the two countries. A year later, what were then considered exceptional circumstances during a new wave of COVID-19 have become the ‘new normal’: outrageously expensive air tickets to mainland China and an arduous process of preparing the COVID-related travel documents demanded by the country’s ever-changing entry rules. But even beyond the financial hardship and prolonged stress this situation has inflicted on those of us who need to travel (and, in particular, return) to China from abroad, the realities of the ‘new normal’ incorporate a growing disjuncture between China and the rest of the world.

And while it will surely take a generation to see the full impact of the still ongoing travel restrictions that have made China almost inaccessible, the disjuncture between China and the West in the field of contemporary art is a persisting condition that started to take form well before the onset of COVID-19.

Western fascination with Chinese contemporary art seems a tale of a bygone era. Compared with the late 1980s and the 1990s (from which eras one thinks of exhibitions such as Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru’s touring show Cities on the Move), the recent decade has witnessed a waning interest from Western curators and art institutions in China’s art scene. Oddly, the same decade has also seen a huge rise in the number of Chinese artists and curators who receive professional training in Western education systems. A curious situation arises: while Chinese artists continue to be present and active on the global stage, ‘Chinese contemporary art’ has become an anachronistic category devoid of generative and transformative potentials. At issue, therefore, is not a physical or logistical barrier to artistic exchange between China and the West, but rather an asymmetrical relationship that amounts to an enlarged blind spot obfuscating the presence of crossovers.

Traces of such crossovers abound, both in the recent past and in the present. For instance, the various methods that artists working in China have devised to sustain and support themselves in a highly corporatised, poorly funded and heavily censored art ecosystem can be productively linked to the prevailing anxiety felt by artists working in the thick of the Western neoliberal condition. New forms of artist collectives and practices of commoning that have been taking place in the West during recent years of austerity resonate with tactics of self-organisation and self-instigation among Chinese artists. Concurrently, issues like mutual aid and care have come to the fore in artistic and curatorial practices in both Western and Chinese contexts.

Such crossovers, however, remain largely overlooked within the asymmetrical landscape of the global artworld, both in terms of market forces and critical discourses, that we inhabit today. And we do not have a working framework – nor infrastructure – for addressing these crossovers even when their traces become manifest. To point out the asymmetry at this moment is not about nostalgia for the heyday of postcolonial curatorial practices whose legacy, particularly with regards to China, has yet to be critically appraised. What is needed is a renewed cultural politics that calls into question new forms of exclusion and enclosure to which the artworld has become acclimatised in the present. I bring up examples of the crossover here not only as an invitation to think about the enlarged blind spots in the increasingly sectionalised artworld, but also as an attempt to envision some entry points that do justice to the heterogeneity and complexity of today’s contemporary artistic practices as well as their conditions of production.

At stake is not a question of representation. For representation of Chinese contemporary art in the Western-centric artworld is, after all, subject to tokenism that reinforces the entrenched centre–margin relationship underwriting the global art landscape. Nor am I concerned with promoting and celebrating Chinese contemporary art, which is easily captive to the nationalist rhetoric around China’s cultural soft-power. Instead, the pressing issue lies in the search for a middle ground between seemingly disparate societies – transnational cultural and political crossovers that lead us to discussions of mutual concerns and shared struggles in the broken-down present.

The crossovers I am outlining are not simply paths that transpose concerns and practices from one context to another. They represent an interstitial space in which mutual concerns and shared struggles can be identified, talked about and cared for. This is a space inhabited by travellers, exiles and smugglers, whose transnational experience constitutes a vantage point that redresses the incapacity for the current global artistic discourses to look beyond provincial and enclosed territories. In a time when geopolitical tensions loom large in the global artworld, the practice of inhabiting the interstitial space, and of keeping its entrance visible and reachable to its seekers, is more urgent than ever.

Find out more about Asymmetry Art Foundation here.

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